Visa issues a growing challenge for Folkmoot

For those who think getting a travel visa is a headache, try steering hundreds of Folkmoot dancers from a dozen different countries through the highly bureaucratic process.

That’s what Folkmoot USA’s group relations committee is responsible for doing months before the performers step foot in the U.S.

“It’s nerve-wracking during the months of March and April because that’s when you have to begin to get things really settled down,” said committee member Dave Stallings.

By then, visas must be in hand and funding for tickets in place. While groups are ultimately responsible for getting their own visas, committee members still have a lot of work on their hands.

“It’s just hard to convince groups, ‘Yeah you’re not coming until July, but you got to start working on it in January,’” said Stallings.

A group from India had to drop out of Folkmoot this year because it did not start the visa process on time, despite constant prodding from Folkmoot coordinators.

Performers from Turkey also had to drop out because they couldn’t raise enough money for the costly trip across the ocean.

“If you’re talking about buying international airfare for 30 people, that’s a lot of money,” said Stallings.

Though Folkmoot provides housing, meals and transportation from the airport, financing every dancer’s journey to the States hasn’t been feasible.

“They pay their own way,” said Rolf Kaufman, chair of the group relations committee. “We have a hard enough time raising the money to feed them and transport them.”

Visa issues and financial constraints usually make it difficult for Folkmoot to recruit dance groups outside of Western Europe. International airfare for 35 people plus baggage and visa fees can add up to $40,000 at times.

Due to unexpected cancellations at the last minute, Folkmoot had no choice but to recruit more Western European groups than usual this year.

Kaufman — who has been involved with Folkmoot since its inception — said he would like to see a fund set up to partially pay for plane tickets, but no one has stepped up to sponsor that idea yet.

Many groups are able to fundraise successfully and coax their governments into donating to the cause. The Turkish dancers weren’t able to get the appropriation they expected this year, which is what led them to cancel the trip.

Another challenge is just finding seats on the same flight for a few dozen performers with luggage and musical instruments — especially when faced with small, commuter flights within the U.S.

“You may have more than a ‘planeful,’” said Stallings.

A new era

The visa process has grown more and more difficult each year, especially amid increasing alarm about illegal immigration.

Embassy officials will try to determine the likelihood that each applicant will become an illegal immigrant after arriving on U.S. soil.

Those who are enrolled in universities, employed or have extended family back at home are more likely to obtain a visa than those who have no tangible reason to return.

Performers from Africa are most likely to have trouble receiving a visa, according to Kaufman.

According to Stallings, the most at-risk performers come from countries with large expatriate populations in the U.S.

“It’s hard for somebody to just come over here and disappear without some kind of support,” said Stallings.

About two decades ago when Folkmoot was just finding its footing, the lead dancer from China attempted to run away with her boyfriend. He just pulled up one day in a rental car and tried to sweet-talk Folkmoot officials into allowing her to go out with him.

But even back then, Folkmoot had a strict policy of not allowing dancers to venture out alone. The Chinese dancer was forced to stick with her group for the remainder of Folkmoot.

Shortly after that, she was scheduled to go to another festival in Utah, which is where she made her escape. Kaufman later heard that she married her boyfriend, who had traveled here from Texas. “She had a family and lived happily ever after,” Kaufman said.

On another occasion, the Folkmoot director heard rumors that a few dancers from Haiti were planning on running off to Miami. The director alerted immigration officials there, who would only say that incidents like that happen every day and there was little they could do about it.

Once, a girl from Trinidad took off after arriving in North Carolina. She had been visiting relatives and ended up rejoining her group members before they flew out.

“She didn’t violate her visa, she just violated [Folkmoot],” said Kaufman.

Despite a few examples of misbehavior here and there, Folkmoot has done an excellent job of keeping tabs on its performers thus far. Performers are in group housing rather than private residences, which are easier to escape.

“We’ve had extremely good luck with avoiding these sorts of things,” said Kaufman.

Heading off problems

To avoid complications as much as possible, Folkmoot avoids recruiting dancers from countries that have volatile relationships with the U.S.

“We don’t try to get, for instance, Iran,” said Kaufman. “We get petitions from Iran, but we don’t try.”

Most dancers pay $130 each to travel with tourist or business visas. In rare cases, though, they must obtain a performers visa. The lengthy process for an entertainer visa requires a petition and a $1,000 fee for the whole group, a cost that Folkmoot covers. Priority processing demands another $1,000 fee on top of that.

Even after all that is invested, the performers visa can be rejected for the group.

In dire circumstances, Folkmoot has turned to U.S. senators for assistance in obtaining visas for performers.

One group from Kenya had especially great difficulty getting to Western North Carolina, Kaufman recalled. By the time the Kenyans received their performers visa, it was too late to round up money for plane tickets.

Last year, the Kenyan group went through the performers visa process once more, got their visa then all of a sudden, the U.S. consulate demanded a special fee of several hundred dollars.

The fee was retribution for a similar charge Kenya levies on U.S. citizens. Kaufman dreaded the worst, but the group was able to raise the funds for the fee.

At the very last minute, the group’s funding source for travel expenses backed out. The group had to cancel.

A few times in recent years, Folkmoot has to resort to finding a ethnic dancers from the U.S. due to incidents like these.

This year, it’s Peruvian dancers from New Jersey. The upside is: they’re coming by Greyhound and don’t need a visa.

International Festival Day brings a world of craft to downtown Waynesville

On International Festival Day, Main Street in Waynesville will transform into a world bazaar where more than one hundred artists, craftsmen and international guests sell all forms of arts and crafts.

The day offers the ultimate cultural exchange for all ages, whether you’re an art lover coming to browse booths of jewelry, paintings, photography and woodwork; a child traveling the world at Passport to the Arts; or a family seeking a glimpse of international dancers and old time mountain music.

The 25th Annual International Festival Day takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 31, in downtown Waynesville. North Carolina’s Official International Festival runs from July 22 to Aug. 1. (See special Folkmoot section inside this week’s edition)

Festival-goers can browse booths filled with handcrafted items and even catch a demonstration or two by artisans including flame workers, potters and woodworkers.

Modern metal artist Bob Gwynn creates one-of-a-kind artwork that brings a vibrant feeling to any room. After returning from a tour in Vietnam in 1972, Gwynn took a welding course to learn a skill before deciding to go back to college.

One day on a power plant job, he cut a butterfly out of a plate of steel. Thirty-eight years and more than 800 major art shows later, he has produced hundreds of metal designs ranging from nature designs, water fountains, and furniture all from his studio located just outside of Greenville. Gwynn’s work has evolved from simple wall pieces to multimedia pieces that bring in vibrant colors and textures.

Metalsmith and jeweler Maggie Joynt has an eye for beauty in unexpected places such as the surface of the rocks outside her studio or the frayed wings of a well-traveled butterfly. Using various materials including leaves, paper, insect wings and fabrics, she presses patterns and textures directly onto sterling and copper. This process preserves the delicate texture directly onto the metal. These abstract, organic and textural elements are evident in all her work. Joynt’s open studio and gallery is located at the Riverwood Shops in historic Dillsboro.

Ceramicist Courtney Tomchik employs the raku firing technique where smoke penetrates the clay and glaze to enhance the range of colors and finishes she uses. After cooling for a short time, the pieces are placed in a bucket of water.

“The water phase stops the color process and sometimes creates flashes that are not visible until it is cooled completely,” Tomchik said.

Once cooled, the piece is cleaned with an abrasive cleaning agent ash deposits. After a 24-hour drying period, Tomchik assembles her pieces and adds additions like glass beads from local shops or her travels and small bits created from clay with gold leaf to create more drama. Each piece is truly one-of-a-kind.

Nadine Fidelman chooses semi-precious gemstones, pearls, fossils and dichroic glass that have character, then “wraps” each one, surrounding it with a minimal amount of wire, to enhance its beauty. Fidelman uses her fingertips, fingernails and various pliers to surround each one and often adds gemstone beads or pearls to create a unique piece of art jewelry. No casting or solder is ever used. She also creates unique jewelry with fine silver, bronze and copper, sometimes combining them with wire wrapping.

The international theme continues at opposite ends of Main Street where food courts feature a wide variety of choices including gyros, Asian spring rolls, crepes, beignets, Caribbean shawarmas, fajitas and — a North Carolina staple — pulled pork barbeque.

The Passport to the Arts children’s area is where children are issued a “passport” and “travel” to countries like Russia, India, Latvia, United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Jordan, Portugal and Poland, and create Indian twirling palm puppets, Kufi hats and other one-of-a-kind crafts to take home.

Festival entertainment will be provided by Folkmoot USA’s international dancers and musicians; Voices in the Laurel Children’s Chorus; and students from the Haywood County Arts Council’s Junior Appalachian Musicians program. The cultural exchange takes place on stages at each end of Main Street beginning at 10:15 a.m. at Town Hall in downtown Waynesville.

For more information, or call the Haywood County Arts Council at 828.452.0593. For ticket information about Folkmoot USA performances during July, visit, 828.452.2997 or 1.877.FOLK-USA.

Volunteers invaluable at Folkmoot

Last year, Folkmoot USA relied on about 4,000 hours of community service to pull off the festival. Volunteers hosted BBQs, sold souvenirs, bandaged sprained ankles, answered phones, served four meals a day and helped in many more ways.

In April, volunteers started painting the Folkmoot Friendship Center, and people will work for a month to a month and a half after the festival ends to make sure all of the sheets are clean.

“We rely on our volunteers very heavily,” said Doug Garrett, the Folkmoot guide and volunteer coordinator. “It would be impossible to have a festival without our volunteers.”

Seasonal residents Bill and Louise Voreis have been volunteering with Folkmoot for 10 years.

Before retiring, Bill Voreis worked as an air traffic controller, and Louise Voreis taught kindergarten and their schedules kept them from spending time together. Now the couple works with each other to record the T-shirt inventory from souvenir sales.

“It’s wonderful because we can do it together,” Louise Voreis said. “These few weeks, we don’t really plan anything else.”

The inventory room at the Folkmoot Center is near the gym where they can watch the performers socialize and practice.

“It’s just fun to watch them,” Bill Voreis said. “They don’t have any of the animosity that adults get later on. … It is the color and the young people and their energy that inspires you to be a part of it.”

Bill Voreis doesn’t hesitate to help around the center in other ways either. He’ll take out the trash, flip hamburgers and buy the performers candy bars and Frisbees as small gifts.

“You start to see the same people day in and day out, and you start to form a bond with them,” Bill Voreis said, recalling the relationship he formed with a French group a few years ago.

Louise Voreis remembers walking around the corner of the building after the closing ceremony, and her husband had on a beret that the French performers had just given him.

The couple also looks forward to seeing the volunteers they’ve made friends with throughout the years at Folkmoot. Along with Louise and Bill Voreis, the Folkmoot volunteer database contains more than a hundred names.

“We can always use more,” Garrett said.

Some jobs allow the volunteers to have close access and relationships with the performers. Others are less glamorous but not less important.

Bill Skelton and his family moved to Waynesville nine years ago on the festival’s International Day. Since then, the family has been to a couple Folkmoot performances each year.

This year, Skelton will man the Folkmoot Center during some performances for five or six nights from 6 to 11 p.m. He anticipates the night shift will be slow and hopes to get some reading done in between the office work. If he runs out of reading material, he’s got Sudoku puzzles on reserve.

“I know how much volunteers mean to different events,” Skelton said, mentioning he often relies on volunteers to accomplish his goals as the director of Haywood County Extension Services.

Skelton’s 15-year-old daughter, Jean Skelton, also will volunteer for the first time this year selling souvenirs at four events – the first being the parade.

“I can’t wait till Friday,” she said.

Jean Skelton is looking forward to practicing her Spanish, while her father is nervous about not being able to communicate with those who may need his help.

“Neither one of us really know what we’re getting ourselves into,” he said.

But both are excited to experience new cultures. Neither has had much opportunity to travel “unless you count Charlotte as a foreign land,” Bill Skelton said jokingly.

Jo Wooten, who heads the first aid room at the Folkmoot Center, enjoys her volunteer position because like the Skeltons she hasn’t had a lot of chances to travel.

“It’s giving people who don’t travel outside of the country the opportunity to learn about other cultures,” Wooten said.

She works in the first aid room from 9 to 11 a.m. every day. She organizes a rotating team of about seven doctors or physician’s assistants and 11 nurses to help in the room.

One of her biggest challenges is the language barrier, she said.

“You get good with hand maneuvers and charades or what have you,” Wooten said.

Most of the ailments she sees in the first aid room include sore throats, coughs, allergies and some injuries such as strains and sprains.

Two other nurses and one doctor or physician’s assistants help Wooten in the clinic every day. One nurse records the vital signs, and the others work in the back with the doctor or physician’s assistant.

“We try to take care of everything without sending them to urgent care,” she said.

But the need for volunteers goes beyond the first aid clinic, souvenir sales and office work.

Before the festival, a group of eight to 10 women come into the center to make the 350 to 400 beds the performers will sleep in. One man waxes the cafeteria floor every year. Painters who are short on jobs due to the recession have donated their services.

“There are so many small jobs that require so many people versed in so many talents,” Garrett said.

A few moments – and 10 days – to celebrate cultural understanding

The end of this year’s Folkmoot USA, some of the acquaintances I made during the festival, and my own ongoing interest in all things political has led me along one of those idealistic wanderings that I’ve often tried to swear off. It’s cliché, I know, but I kept coming back to the truth that we should spend more time celebrating what we all have in common instead of fighting over what we disagree about.

A book I recently read probably contributed to the imaginary dance with what could be, as opposed to what is. I had little time to read in April and May, and so spent a long time getting through the popular Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. A book that should have taken a week at most to read sat on my nightstand for nearly two months as I pecked away at a chapter here and a chapter there.

This book has become required reading in many schools, and for good reason. It’s the true story of a mountain climber who almost died attempting to conquer K2, only to be saved by the villagers in one of the most isolated areas on earth. He came away with the notion that these people living in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and their children — especially the girls — deserved an education.

Despite all our preconceived notions of Islamic fundamentalists, the very conservative village elders throughout the region welcomed Mortenson. As they saw how their children were empowered, and how Mortenson had no agenda except that of educating children who otherwise might not ever learn to read and write, they embraced the American and his simple goal of helping kids in these remote areas.

I thought about that book as this year’s 10-day Folkmoot international festival got under way (In the interest of disclosure, let me say that I am president of the Folkmoot board and have been a fan of this festival since I first arrived in Waynesville in 1992). Folkmoot doesn’t do anything as significant as building schools, but it has thrived for 25 years for many similar reasons, I think. Folkmoot touches lives on so many different levels.

When we begin planning for each festival, Folkmoot is a local event for almost everyone involved. Each of these groups was back home in their own country, trying to figure out how much money they needed, which members would be coming, when they would leave, and all those many preparations that go with international travel.

As all the planning comes together and we are just a few weeks away from the start of Folkmoot, those of us in Western North Carolina also begin to get excited about this festival. I know my own children — Liam, Hannah and Megan — are a font of questions and queries about who’s coming, when will they arrive, what shows will we go to, how old are the dancers and on and on and on. By that time they are already learning about all these countries, saoking up knowledge without even knowing it.

As Folkmoot gets under way, we have close to 300 performers from all over the world housed with local guides, spending the day with bus drivers and volunteers, and interacting with Americans from many different socio-economic levels and age groups. It’s my hope that they leave with a better understanding of our values and firsthand experiences of our hospitality, thanks to those interactions and the audiences they perform for. And these performers also share much with us, offering a glimpse of their own culture, and doing so in many different ways.

We invite the different groups here for this festival and, after spending time with people from countries they have never visited, they leave. Again, we hope when they depart they do so with the realization that we are all more alike than different; that when we celebrate each other’s culture we foster a better understanding of this complicated world. That’s the simple message of Folkmoot we want to send home with these wonderful performers.

By my estimates, during its 26-year run Folkmoot has brought a total of more than 7,500 performers to these mountains to share their dance, their music and their heritage. A minimum of 2,600 volunteers and employees has been associated with Folkmoot over those years. Around 250,000 to 300,000 spectators have been to ticketed events over the 26 years of the festival, and that doesn’t include the huge audiences at each Parade Day and International Festival Day.

By any one’s count that’s a huge helping of international goodwill that we here in Western North Carolina are responsible for. Here is Folkmoot’s mission statement: “Folkmoot USA promotes world friendship and celebrates cultural heritage by hosting the North Carolina International Folk Festival and other programs for residents and visitors.”

I don’t want to over-emphasize the impact of this international festival that Western North Carolina has embraced so generously, but let us at least revel for a few moments in the fact that Folkmoot is indeed a unique and inspiring event.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Hard work takes place off Folkmoot stages

By Andre A. Rodriguez

Each morning of the Folkmoot festival, the members of Shalom Israel Ashdod spend at least one hour getting warmed up for the day, working on staying in shape by doing ballet.

Then the group — including musicians — spends at least another hour practicing the dance programs it will present to audiences later in the day. The dance troupe arrived in Waynesville after two days in New York and rehearsed two full days prior to the beginning of the 26th annual Folkmoot festival.

Even though the dancers have practiced and performed the dances probably hundreds of times, the quest for perfection continues and might never be attained.

“Usually the group is working all the year, all the time,” said dancer Moshe Gino, who has been with the group for 15 years. “We don’t work only for a festival. This is working all year. We work three times a week for three hours at a time.

The constant rehearsing is necessary, he said, because while the traditions, dances and music stay the same, the dancers are always changing.

“We need to teach the new dancers and combine them with the old dancers to make the art good on the stage. It’s important that on the stage you look good to the audience to enjoy the Israeli folklore, Gino said.”

The dedication to the art displayed by Shalom Israel Ashdod is representative of the many international folk dance troupes who take part in Folkmoot festival. Many of the dancers and musicians are professionals or “semi-professionals,” as Gino refers to the members of his group.

But Gino, as well as his father, Hilik Gino, who leads the group’s rehearsals, are professionals. Hilik Gino studied dancing in New York at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance along with Alvin Ailey and French dancer Roland Petit, Moshe Gino said.

In addition to Shalom Israel Ashdod, Hilik Gino runs several other groups in and around the Israeli port city of Ashdod.

“They are different styles. Everything is very, very unique. Every group has their own performance and choreography,” said Moshe Gino, who will be traveling to Los Angeles after Folkmoot to teach another dance group his father worked with there.

Why all the work? For the performance.

“This is the most important thing for a dancer — to perform before an audience,” Gino said. “It’s hard to wake up in the morning, most of the dancers didn’t sleep very well, so to wake up in the morning and start to work you need a lot of power. But when you’re at a performance you get power from the audience. That’s usually what happens. The bigger the performance, you are excited more and you are giving more to the audience usually. It makes you more nervous and gives you more pressure and gives you more energy.”


Keeping performers happy

Working behind the scenes at the Folkmoot Friendship Center, the kitchen staff also does its part to keep the Folkmoot performers energized by serving up about 1,700 meals a day, which include lots of fruits, vegetables, beans and rice, and macaroni and cheese, said morning shift kitchen manager Lake Williams.

“They love the American macaroni and cheese,” she said.

The kitchen staff prepares mostly traditional American foods but also takes into account dietary needs of the visiting groups, including providing vegetarian meals and ensuring dishes do not contain pork.

The healthy, hardy meals are appreciated by the dancers and go a long way toward ensuring the dancers enjoy their Folkmoot experience.

“Look, these dancers, they paid a lot of money to come to the festival, and if they don’t enjoy themselves they don’t have any reason to come next year,” Gino said. “So what happens inside the Folkmoot Center is very important to the festival, because without this any festival cannot exist.”

Shalom Israel Ashdod seems to really enjoy the Folkmoot experience. This year marks the group’s fourth visit to North Carolina’s Official International Festival. The group also performed at Folkmoot in 1995, 1998 and 2001.

“This is an amazing place,” said Gino, who was with the group for each visit.

The amount of interaction that goes on between the groups at Folkmoot also helps the group members enjoy themselves and want to keep coming back.

“You need all the socialization,” Gino said. “It’s an amazing thing to meet other people from other cultures,” especially when meeting groups with similar backgrounds and shared stories.

“Sometimes when we go to a festival there is an Arab country like Egypt or Armenia, countries that don’t have very good relationships with Israel, but they were our best friends because the Arab nation is very similar to Israel.

“There are many people in Israel who came from Arab nations,” such as Morocco, as did Gino’s father.

“So there is the same music, same subjects to talk about, to enjoy,” Gino said. “A lot of Israeli people speak Arabic.

“When you meet other cultures I think it’s changing,” he said. “You look at other points of view. It’s changing because you see that everybody is similar. All the people are very similar. All the people want to have fun, to enjoy meeting other people, to make connections. It’s the same in every culture, in every state, in every human being. You understand how simple it is and how other people make it not simple.”

The work that goes into Folkmoot performances is hard, Gino said, but “the world is very easy.”

Folkmoot experience shared across generations of performers

By Andre A. Rodriguez

Twenty-five years after their father represented the Netherlands at the first Folkmoot festival, a second generation of folk dancers has arrived from Holland to take part in the two-week international dance festival.

Oscar and Victor Peeters weren’t even born when their father, Rene Peeters, came to Waynesville to perform, first in 1980 at a folk festival that was Folkmoot’s forerunner and then again in 1984 at the inaugural Folkmoot event.

Growing up, the brothers heard many tales about their father’s first trip to the United States and the international festivals to which their parents traveled — in addition to Folkmoot — in countries such as Israel, Italy, Portugal and Romania.

“I heard stories about festivals in a lot of countries, mostly in Europe,” said Oscar Peeters, 21. “My father was in the Waynesville festival, and he talked about America. That was his first visit (to the United States).”

“Just like us,” said Victor Peeters, 16. “This is our first visit (to the United States), too.”

Oscar and Victor Peeters’ mother, Lynda Hoekstra, is also making her first trip to the states. She is artistic director for Paloina, the Dutch group with which the brothers dance and with which she used to dance. She said her husband spoke fondly of the host family with whom he stayed in Waynesville. She said he also shared a frightening and slightly humorous anecdote about another group’s performance during the fledgling Folkmoot festival.

“There was a German group from the south of Germany, and they had a dance with axes,” Hoekstra said. “There was this big theater with a very new floor. Their dance didn’t go right, and one of the dancer’s axes hit the floor and made a hole.

“So that was one of the things he talked about and of course it was his first time to America as well,” she said. He spoke about the “big houses and big cars. It’s quite different than Holland.”

Another dancer performing with Paloina at this year’s Folkmoot shares a similar history with Oscar Peeters and Victor Peeters. Twenty-year-old Jan (pronounced “Yon”) Hootsmans said his mother, Maja Kuijper, was a singer with Paloina’s accompanying orchestra during the 1984 Folkmoot festival. Hootsmans joined Paloina when he was 16 and began dancing with members he grew up watching, he said.

“As a small kid I actually went to a festival with some of the people who are in the group right now, so they knew me as a 2-year-old and then as a 16-year-old.”

The young performers have been enjoying their first trip to the United States, which began with a few days in New York.

Victor Peeters said he enjoyed renting bikes and going cycling, while Oscar Peeters said his favorite part of the trip so far was looking up a Romanian gypsy band on the Internet and going to see them perform live “deep, deep in Brooklyn.”

As far as international folk festivals go, Folkmoot is one of the largest and most organized they’ve attended, Hoekstra and Hootsmans said.

“Everything from day one to day last is organized,” Hoekstra said. “When you come into the (Folkmoot Friendship Center) all the beds are made and they even give you towels and small bag with toiletries and it’s all so well done. The food is very good. They try to make it good for everybody.”

Making it good for everybody includes allowing the members of the groups from eight countries participating in this year’s festival to interact with others outside their group as much as possible.

Victor Peeters, who took part in the fourth annual Folkmoot 5K on Saturday (July 18), said it was an “awesome” experience.

“I think it was great running with all the different people and the locals,” he said.

Some other festivals only allow for interaction with their guides and bus drivers, said Victor Peeters.

“Mostly the guides at the other festivals are the representatives of the (host) company that have some ability in English,” Oscar Peeters said. “Here (at Folkmoot) everyone speaks English so you can converse with any person you want to.”

Hoekstra said she’s happy her sons have taken an interest in folk dancing, even though they only began participating about two years ago. It’s good for the continuity of the Paloina, which was founded in 1971.

“There were years when some of the older ones stopped dancing and then we had a period when not too many dancers were ready as far as joining the other dancers,” she said. “So you feel it’s good to share the information you know to not only the next generation but also to people who are a few years behind you because it’s good to continue the dance.”

Hootsmans has two younger brothers who dance with Paloina’s children’s group, to whom he feels he has a responsibility to pass on what he’s learned.

“I have a feeling they’ll probably be joining our group in a few years,” he said. “I’ll be there to mentor them at that point as well as some younger guys who are dancing in that children’s group right now.”

Folkmoot expands into three new counties

Last year Cindy Gilbert took her Polk County band students to China to perform. This year she is bringing the world’s music to them — thanks to Folkmoot USA and its drive to expand its presence in Western North Carolina.

Gilbert jumped at the chance to host an international folk group at the high school’s 750-seat auditorium at Columbus, one of Folkmoot’s three new venues this year. As the Polk County High School director of bands, Gilbert knew the value of a Folkmoot performance and agreed to help make it possible when the local arts council couldn’t.

“I really try to bring any type of cultural art, especially cultural music, to my kids and to my community,” the award-winning band director said from her home in Landrum, S. C., just across the border from Polk County. “I was willing to do whatever they needed me to do.”

That is just the kind of enthusiasm Folkmoot’s board of directors was looking for when it decided to expand Folkmoot’s international reach in Western North Carolina, receiving a $37,500 grant to do so.

“This was a grant that was received a year ago,” said Karen Babcock, Folkmoot’s new executive director. “Last year’s festival expanded into three new venues and this year we’re adding three more.”

Besides Polk County in the Tryon/Columbus area, performances will be held for the first time at Burnsville Town Center at Burnsville in Yancey County and Moore Auditorium at Mars Hill College at Mars Hill in Madison County.

This year’s festival runs from July 16 through July 26 and features performers from Serbia, Greece, Netherlands, Romania, Mexico, Togo, Spain and Israel. Host sites are Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Maggie Valley, Canton, Clyde, Highlands, Bryson City, Cullowhee, Asheville, Columbus, Burnsville, Marion, Mars Hill, Flat Rock and Franklin.

Debbie Lavela, Folkmoot’s ticket manager, said the 36-member board was looking to expand Folkmoot’s footprint in Western North Carolina to generate new audiences for the festival and help raise its profile and ticket sales — stifled by a sluggish economy and rising gas prices.

Even with ticket sales and support from Friends of Folkmoot and sponsorships, not all expenses were being met, said board member David Stallings. But board officials hope that new grants will help the organization to reach fresh audiences and untapped financial supporters.

“We have a very smart board,” Lavela said. “We knew we had to expand into some new counties, into some places we had not been, some new areas like Polk County. Burnsville just wanted us, so we knew we were going to have the support from the local people.”

George Nero, auditorium manager for the Burnsville Town Center, credited Sen. Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville), for recognizing a good fit. The Burnsville Town Center opened in 2005 and seats more than 400 people, serving as the area’s convention, community and performing arts centers.

“Joe Sam really had the idea of putting us together,” Nero said. “We had an economic development summit for [Yancey] county at the center ... and he was talking about what a nice place this would be for a Folkmoot event. We agreed we’d really love to have one and we could probably get the crowd to come. This area is supposed to have the highest number of artisans per capita in the United States. That’s everything from pottery makers to dancers to musicians to everything. We have a built-in audience and should do fairly well with group sales. We’ve already had several sell outs with bluegrass and gospel groups.”

Queen said expanding Folkmoot is the next step for the 26-year-old festival, which officially became North Carolina’s International Folk Festival, thanks to legislation he crafted and pushed through the legislature.

“We’ll go as far as time and our radius allows us to sleep and eat and gather our wits about us,” he said.

Expanding Folkmoot also makes a “big difference in the way Western North Carolina thinks of itself,” he said.

“We are hosting the world. We are a world-class place. It’s great to have different counties pull together for Folkmoot. It’s our state’s official international festival and it’s a regional festival,” said Queen.

The Toe River Arts Council, which promotes the arts in Yancey and Madison counties, was so happy to have Folkmoot its members spearheaded the group sales effort and recruited volunteers to serve as ushers and help in other positions.

In Polk County, six of Gilbert’s band students will serve as ushers during the performance, and her school-based volunteer group, Friends of the Band, will sell concessions at intermission. It’s a win-win situation, Gilbert said, in more ways than one. “It’s a wonderful auditorium, plenty of room and very convenient for the public. The kids will be there in their dress clothes and it will help them with their community service,” she noted. “They’ll help elderly people get to their seats and show them up to the balconies.”

For Folkmoot to expand, the board had to look carefully at ways to shuffle and trim performances in other communities, with minimal negative impact and without raising ticket prices, a task the board performed remarkably well, Lavela noted.

“The only thing we really eliminated this year was Stecoah Valley in Robbinsville. Stecoah was the longest distance we had to travel, and that was a problem,” Lavela said. “We just couldn’t make the schedule fit this year. We’re still on good terms and just because we didn’t go this year doesn’t mean we won’t go in the future. Considering what we had to do, I really think it turned out great.”

The board also cut one of two performances at Blue Ridge Community College at Flat Rock and reduced the number of countries that will perform at various Haywood County venues, Lavela said, sending those one or two shaved from the Haywood County schedule to Burnsville, Mars Hill or Polk County.

“We’re scheduling Family Night again this year because we really believe in that,” Lavela said. “It’s an interactive family performance on the lawn. People bring blankets and children have the freedom to run around. Two countries will perform and afterward the performers will come down off the stage and show dance steps and answer questions.” (For a complete Folkmoot schedule, check the Web site at or see the schedule in this section.)

Getting kids outside and away from a computer is part of what drove Gilbert to so eagerly accept the job of introducing Polk County to Folkmoot.

“We’re in a technical age and these kids are sitting around playing computers and video games and it is definitely a discovery time,” she said. “But these things (international performances) are not really brought around to them unless it’s on the Internet. But to see it live is a totally different perspective.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for everybody. My kids get the opportunity to see this entertainment from all over the world. They are not having to travel anywhere but to the high school. You can’t get any better than that.”

Director says community values festival

By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell

Forget Europe. Haywood County is where the action is for Karen Babcock this summer, and she couldn’t be happier. Well, give her a piece of dark chocolate and she could be.

Babcock is the new executive director of Folkmoot USA, North Carolina’s official international festival. A seasoned traveler, Babcock has spent several summers exploring the Netherlands and neighboring countries with her sister, an international civil rights lawyer, who teaches law for two weeks in July at the University of Amsterdam.

But this July will find Babcock in the throes of Folkmoot, Western North Carolina’s international house party. Hired just seven months ago to lead Haywood County’s biggest tourist draw, Babcock has found that telling people she’s with Folkmoot gets her warm fuzzies from everyone she meets. And it’s more than just good ol’ fashion Southern hospitality.

“They clearly love Folkmoot. There’s just an incredible positive attitude about Folkmoot here,” Babcock says. “I don’t see that people are taking it for granted. I see that people fully realize the value to the community.”

That’s good news for Babcock, who is looking for new sources of revenue now that budget constraints have forced Haywood County officials to slash the festival’s budget by $20,000 this year. “I think about fundraising 24 hours a day,” Babcock says. “We have a lot of the same sponsors as last year, I’m happy to say. Some have leveled out their sponsorships from last year, but we have some new ones, too.”

Some of those include much — needed in-kind contributions, such as catering the all — important volunteer recognition dinner in the fall, she adds.

“We have found that in some cases cutting costs is just as important as raising money. But we like to raise money, too,” she says.

Babcock hopes that expanding Folkmoot’s reach will bring in new audiences and grow the appreciation for the 25-year-old festival’s cultural contributions to Western North Carolina. “The more people we can get in front of and get this incredible international experience to, the better,” she says.

This year the festival will send performers to three new venues: Moore Auditorium in Mars Hill, Burnsville Town Center in Burnsville and Polk County High School in the Tryon area, near the South Carolina border.

Babcock has also stepped up marketing efforts by expanding her media outreach to South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. She says she is trigger ready to help the media get the information they want when they want it, a detail not to be taken lightly.

“A consistent marketing program always pays off. You have to pay attention to and be responsive to media requests,” she says.

On the home front she has increased the exposure of Folkmoot’s logo so that it is prominently displayed and advertised throughout the community. She’s even getting children in on the act by supplying them with — you guessed it — Folkmoot tattoos for the international parade through downtown Waynesville.

Since she arrived last December, Babcock, 48, has immersed herself in the people and places of Western North Carolina and found much to her liking, especially the chocolate shop in downtown Waynesville. “I eat chocolate every day,” she admits. She’s also thrilled to have a concentrated arts and theater arts community, great coffee shops and yes, that chocolate shop that now sells gelato.

Babcock left suburban Maryland and a job as the associate director of the nonprofit Ladew Topiary Gardens to settle in rural Western North Carolina at the urging of friends who had already moved here. She came for a visit and liked what she saw.

“Haywood County reminds me of the places I haven’t been,” she says. “The mountains are just beautiful and amazing and calming and inspiring. I love the outdoors so a place like this is just heaven for me.”

But Babcock discovered that rural living in Maryland wasn’t quite the same as rural living in Western North Carolina. “I come from a rural area 30 miles from Baltimore,” she says. “The community was huge that I was working with at my last nonprofit. The difference here is you know everybody and everybody knows you. That’s quite a different mindset to get your head around. But it’s very nice that people wave at everybody.”

Babcock also is learning to work with a small staff, compared to her last job, which means more multi-tasking for her. She shares the Folkmoot office space with two part-time employees. Hundreds of volunteers keep the festival running.

Though this world traveler with a taste for international cuisine, art and outdoor adventure won’t be sipping wine along the Seine this summer or bicycling through Holland as she has in the past, Babcock has found that Haywood County can hold its own for her. When she needs a fix, she’s got the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway, the Chef’s Table pasta, which rivals any in Tuscany, and the Chocolate Bear, which satisfies that one-of-a-kind craving as well as Belgium’s famous trademark delicacy. Trust her on this; she’s experienced them all.

And if she feels a few pangs of homesickness for Amsterdam come summer? Well, blessed serendipity. Guess who is part of the Folkmoot lineup this year? The Netherlands. There’s just no place like a new home.

The groups of Folkmoot 2006

Canada – Zephyr

Zephyr, a French Canadian dance company from Edmonton, Alberta, in Western Canada was founded in 2002 through Edmonton’s Francophone Dance School “L’Association la Girandole.” This summer, Zephyr includes Folkmoot as part of the group’s first international tour. The group will participate in Folkmoot immediately following its performance in the well-known festival “Mondial des Cultures” in Drummondville, Quebec.

Gala Preview has a new home

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Folkmoot USA’s Gala Preview will celebrate its first year in its new home at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 20 at Eaglenest Entertainment in Maggie Valley.

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